Who among us would ever deny that the Holocaust has occurred? A person might make that statement if they were a white supremacist, or live in Iran, but even then we wouldn’t think they really believe what they are saying. We would be certain that their opinions were the result of biased propaganda. Given that, many people in the Western world were astounded that a respected British man, the product of a well-thought-of family who received an excellent education and who was touted as a reputable historian, would join the ranks of those denying the Holocaust. David Irving became famous for publishing his book Hitler’s War followed by War Path wherein he argued Adolph Hitler had no knowledge of the “Final Solution,” that the atrocities of extermination camps were an unproven Jewish exaggeration and, finally, that gas chambers were never used to exterminate millions of Jews and other social undesirables… in fact he argued they never even existed.
The Price of Battling a Falsifier of History
In 1993 an Emory University professor, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, herself a Jew whose parents fled Germany, wrote her own book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In the years after publishing, she gave lectures decrying this evil distortion of history… this whitewashing of the horrors of unbridled hatred and racism. And Mr. Irving turned his cross hairs on her. The film Denial tells the story of her reputation being attacked, eventually leading to her being sued for defamation (along with her publisher, Penguin Books).
We first meet Dr. Lipstadt as she talks to her class at Emory about “deniers.” She makes the point that on principle she refuses to debate Mr. Irving, as she believes it only gives credence to his completely vacuous stance. The scene soon shifts to a public lecture she is giving where Irving has surreptitiously slipped into the audience. He rises and denounces the points of her lecture and ridicules her for being unwilling to debate the “facts.” It does not go well for Lipstadt who is unprepared for his assault and she leaves the stage humiliated. A showman, Irving has allies filming the interaction and releases an edited version on the Internet, which makes many wonder about her arguments.
Defamation in the United States vs. America
Lipstadt is chagrined by this interaction but continues to make every attempt to discredit Irving’s viewpoint. But she is taken aback when made aware Irving is suing her and her publisher for defamation. She further comes to learn that the trial will take place in the British court system where the onus lies with the defense to prove that Mr. Irving was aware he was purposefully lying in claiming that the Holocaust did not occur.
This is a much more difficult task than in the US justice system, due to our First Amendment protected Freedom of Speech. Convictions for defamation (or libel) are rare under US laws due to the defendants only needing to supply evidence that they believed their statements to be true regardless of the facts. In America the critical factor is what the defendant (the person accused of defamation) was thinking, that is, that the defendant was purposefully lying (which is a difficult proof). So the law is on the side of the person being sued. In Great Britain the critical issue is whether the defendant can prove the plaintiff (the person allegedly defamed) purposefully and knowingly did what the defendant alleged. In this case it means that Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust occurred and that Irving knew it, yet lied about it. Dr. Lipstadt is shocked to learn such a proof under the British legal system could be very difficult and the law is much more weighted against the defendant.
From that point forward the film focuses on Lipstadt’s defense, and the film is the story of that trial based on her book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.” Her defense is headed initially by solicitor Anthony Julius and later joined by barrister Richard Rampton. The difference between a solicitor and barrister is only one of the many things that puzzles Lipstadt. The peculiarities of the British system of justice compared to America’s is a constant frustration for her.
And nothing is more annoying to her than the strategy that her legal team tells her she must utilize in order to win. That strategy means not calling as witnesses numerous Holocaust survivors who wish to testify and, even more disappointing, being advised to not testify herself. Her team wants the trial to be totally about David Irving and his motives for reaching his conclusions. They are especially concerned when Irving chooses to mount his own defense, given his oratorical abilities and penchant for bravura. She reluctantly begins to understand the need for her to listen to her legal team. She is told, “What feels best is not always what works best… stay seated, button your lip and keep quiet… It’s the price you pay for winning.”
Further frustrating her, when Dr. Lipstadt goes to dinner with prominent Jewish leaders in London asking for and expecting their financial support, she is shocked that they ask her to reach an out-of-court settlement with Irving for fear that she will lose her case, thereby legitimizing his views. She tells them she will not back down stating, “The world is full of cowards. I’ve always had the fear that I am one of them.” Despite her anxiety about her defense, she needs to prove that she is not.
Ghosts of the Past
Denial is a film for those who love legal dramas and are interested in learning about (or, narrative-wise, putting up with) another country’s unfamiliar judicial system. It mostly takes place in a British courtroom with wigged opponents arguing their cases, or then in the offices of the legal teams. But there is an exception where Lipstadt’s legal team goes to Poland to see Auschwitz first-hand. For me this presented by far the most memorable moments of the film. Seen in the wintertime, one gazes at row after row of now silent barracks contained in the 5,000 acre camp, now outlined in frost and fog.
In one memorable scene, Dr. Lipstadt stands at where steps once led to the lower entry of the now leveled building that contained the “showers” where thousands were gassed with Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide) — an estimated half million in Auschwitz alone. There is a shot of Deborah gazing down into the hole where the steps were and the background is just swirling mist, until suddenly one realizes the mist begins to take the shapes of men, women and children descending those steps to their doom. The approximately 20 seconds this scene lasts is incredibly moving with no dialogue… just the images. In one additional scene the camera looks through a porthole in a steel door where Nazi guards could view the deadly chamber to make sure the carnage was complete and it is almost as effective. The wispy opacities on the tightly sealed window slowly change to ghostly images of victims clawing at the door. These, for me, are impactful scenes… by far the most powerful in the film.
Supporting Actors Steal the Film
After seeing her in The Light Between Oceans, I was looking forward to seeing Oscar winner (for The Constant Gardner) Rachel Weisz portray Deborah Lipstadt but her performance is not memorable. Her character has little development and we know little more about her by the end of the film than at the beginning, other than she likes to jog to alleviate her stress (interesting similarities to Tom Hanks character in Sully — some of the scenes of her jogging through London streets in the middle of the night are almost identical to those of Sully’s Tom Hanks in New York). She appears to have few close friends, no significant other nor children — just her dogs. One admires her bravery in the face of being bullied but it is hard to develop an attachment to her character. Weisz’s acting is dutiful but not overly impressive.
The acting chops in the film belong to two character actors, Tom Wilkinson (twice Oscar nominated for In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton and admired for his role as Mafia boss Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins) and veteran character actor Timothy Spall (Wormtail in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2). Wilkinson’s character, Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton initially impresses her as a stiff and condescending legal expert that Lipstadt is not sure she wishes to keep on. His behavior when they visit Auschwitz is abhorrent to her and in addition Rampton likes his alcohol a little bit too much. But as time goes on his wisdom and skill erase the negatives. Wilkinson is very believable as Deborah’s opinion of Rampton slowly evolves.
However, the film is stolen by Timothy Spall, who I think deserves consideration for best supporting actor during the awards season. His portrayal of his character goes without pause from warmly playing with his beautiful toddler daughter to bullying and humiliating a Holocaust survivor. He is despicable but yet so very human. I admired his acting as much as I deplored his character every moment he was on the screen.
Director Mick Jackson (best known for directing the break-out hit The Bodyguard and Temple Grandin — Denial being his first director stint since that 2010 HBO film) created an adaptation about righting wrongs and opposing liars. Unfortunately it falls short in developing the protagonist’s character development and one exits the theater feeling that for a biographical film one still knows scant little about Deborah Lipstadt. It also has several loose ends that are never tied up. At one point Dr. Lipstadt promises a group of Holocaust survivors that they will voice their stories in court. It never happens, yet the broken promise is never again confronted. I understood why it could not occur, but it should have been addressed.
A Christian Response
There is no doubt as to where we as Christ-followers should stand on the question of the Holocaust. It was one of the great evil acts of the 20th century (preceded by many others in more remote times). Thank you God that my family and those I love live in a relatively safe time and place. But what stance do we take towards an evil man like Irving (still living and writing)?
(MILD SPOILER) There is a scene in the film that sticks with me. At the end of the trial Irving crosses the divide between the plaintiff and the defendant. He extends his hand toward Lipstadt’s barrister Rampton. Wilkinson’s character, without a moment’s hesitation, turns his back on Irving and walks out of the court room leaving Irving humiliated. I have read in some theaters audiences stood and cheered at that moment (there were only about five people in the matinee where my wife and I saw Denial and that did not happen). And I ask myself, “Is this what Christ would want me to do?” The answer is obvious. But the next question is, “If the thought occurred to me to do so, could I resist the tremendous satisfaction and pleasure that such an act would give me?”
This is a serious and educational movie. Would that it had had more moments of drama and passion such as its scenes at Auschwitz. It is a film that probably only a legal nerd could love but one that many of us would view with benefit to our understanding of history and of those who would deny that evil men continue to corrupt our fallen world.